November 24 – Volcano-no

Today’s factismal: Many of the words for lava are Hawaiian.

If you ask any geo-geek about molten rock and the first question that he’ll ask is “inside the ground or on top of it?” That’s because geology has different names for molten rock depending on where it is. When the molten rock is inside the ground, it is called magma. When it is exposed on the surface, it is called lava. And, unlike many other pedantries, this distinction actually makes sense. That’s because lava meets the air (or the water) on one side, which allows it to cool more quickly which means that it tends to have smaller crystals but magma is all wrapped up in a blanket of rock, which means it cools more slowly which means it tends to have bigger crystals.

This Hawai'i volcano makes very small crystals (Image courtesy USGS)

A Hawai’i volcano making a’a
(Image courtesy USGS)

And that isn’t the only place where volcanic terminology gets down and detailed. For example, when basaltic lava erupts at a low temperature (just about 2000°F), it is stiff and moves slowly; as a result, the outer surface breaks off in a layer of small pebbles known as clinkers. When the mass cools, it is called a’a, from the Hawai’ian for “stony lava”. But when the lava is nice and hot, it is very thin and moves quickly. This means that the upper surface, which forms a skin like that on hot milk, The skin cools into a distinctive form known as pahoehoe or “smooth lava”. And if the basaltic lava erupts under water, it forms small little pillows that we call (wait for it) pillow basalts.

Two geologists standing near a lava flow (Image courtesy USGS)

Two geologists standing near a pahoehoe lava flow
(Image courtesy USGS)

If you’d like to learn more about the weird and wonderful world of volcanoes, why not head on over to the USGS Volcano web site?

November 23 – That She Blows!

Today’s Factismal: A whale exploded in the town of Tainan, Taiwan in 2004, shattering windows and crushing cars.

There are a few basic rules of good research. Don’t forget to turn off the Bunsen burner. Don’t drink and derive. And (most essential of all) never mess with a rotting whale.

That last is important because of what happens when anything dies: things start to grow in it that shouldn’t. And those things generate methane, flavored with intestinal ketones and esters of pure yuck. Now, if people left the rotting things alone, then they’d do no real harm in the short run and end up giving you better soil in the long run (think of what a compost heap does for your garden). But they sure do smell, courtesy of all of those ketones and esters. And that means that people invariably want to put that smell as far away as possible.

So people try to blow up whales. And they try to bury whales. And they try to drive whales through the middle of downtown on a truck bed. And it never ends well.

At least, not on land. But scientists have done some interesting work with whale carcasses in the ocean and gotten amazing results. When whale carcasses wash ashore in California, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute pulls them out to sea and sinks them where they can be watched. Over the years, they’ve learned how whale carcasses and other big messes get cleaned up on the ocean floor.

First, the big predators like sharks, crabs, and hagfish come by and strip away the meat. Then comes a type of worm known as the “bone-eating snot flower” (Osedax mucofloris ) for its diet and shape. Osedax worms only live on whale bones; more specifically, they bore into the whale bones using acid and then suck the marrow from the bones. The marrow is rich in fat, which feeds bacteria that live in the Osodex worm. The bacteria then give off wastes that the worm is able to use as food. Within a matter of months, a colony of Osodex worms can reduce a whale skeleton to a giant pile of mush, suitable for enriching the ocean floor. There are similar detritovores that live on land, from the vulgar earthworm to the sacred dung beetle. And without them, the world would be a lot messier and less pleasant to live in.

If you’d like to try your hand at making the world of science a better place to live in, then consider working with as they try to match whale songs from across the globe:

November 22 – Tastes Like Tofu

Today’s factismal: The whale shark can have as many as 300 pups (baby sharks) at the same time.

If you think that Kate has it bad with her royal baby, imagine what a female whale shark must feel like. Once the female mates, she produces baby sharks (known as pups) at a steady pace by fertilizing the eggs one by one and allowing them to hatch inside her body before giving birth in a process known as ovoviviparity (“egg live birth”). How long does the process last? Nobody knows for sure. What we do know is that a female whale shark caught off of Taiwan in 1995 had 304 pups inside, at stages ranging from just-fertilized to “ready to pop out”.

A whale shark opens wide for dinner (Image courtesy ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library)

A whale shark opens wide for dinner
(Image courtesy ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library)

The length of time that a whale shark stays pregnant is just one of the many mysteries surrounding these fish. Though the whale shark is found in tropical waters around the world, very little is known about the species. But what is known is amazing. At 32 ft long and 20,000 lbs heavy the whale shark is the largest living fish (though it is only half the size of the aptly-named and thankfully extinct megalodon). They can dive to 4,200 ft in search of food, which is mainly plankton and small fish. And they will migrate thousands of miles in search of their food which they eat at a rate of six pounds an hour. Though these sharks have more than 300 rows of vestigial teeth, they feed using twenty “filter pads” that parallel the gills. The plankton gets caught in the filter pads and then makes its way to the throat by a process that nobody understands yet.

Gill damage allows us to see the filter pads (Image courtesy ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library)

Gill damage allows us to see the filter pads
(Image courtesy ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library)

And it is that “yet” that scientists are trying to get rid of. We want to learn more about the whale shark. Not just because it is a valuable food fish (referred to as the “tofu shark” in Taiwan because of the way they taste), but because they are amazing animals. If you’ve seen a whale shark or just want to learn more about them, head on over to the EcoOcean Whale Shark Photo ID Library:

Christmas Sale!

Time for a brief commercial announcement:

Give the gift of science this Christmas! Special factismals collections and the first volume of the Secret Science Society’s fun is available on Smashwords at half off! that’s right! Buy them before Christmas and you’ll only pay half as much as you would normally. Though most sales are after Christmas, I’m running this one right before.

To get the sales price, just enter the coupon code given below. But hurry! These deals go away soon!

The factismals series is all about the little bits of science that make it so interesting. Each book contains a month’s worth of little facts (factismals) that explain a bit of science. Even better, each day includes a link to a science experiment that you can take part in! And the best part is that your work in each experiment will help the researchers doing the experiment! This isn’t one of those “kill a potato” books; you’ll have opportunities to do *real* science and work with *real* scientists. You’ll be participating in the movement known as “citizen science”.

So take a look. Give an experiment or two a try. What do you have to lose?

birdbrainscover Factismals For Bird Brains
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Did you ever wonder how many different types of reptile there are (and if any live near you)? Or orcas sound like (and if they have accents)? Or how many people are killed every year by sharks (and how many sharks are killed by people)? Then this is the book for you!

healthnutscover Factismals For Health Nuts
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Did you ever wonder what blood types mean (and if yours is special)? Or how they name diseases (and if you can get one named for you)? Or how they stopped diseases like cholera (and if you could do it, too)? Then this is the book for you!

spacecadetscover Factismals for Space Cadets
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Did you ever wonder how they choose the names for astronomical objects (and if you could name a few yourself)? Or what Jupiter sounds like (and if you could listen)? Or whatever happened to atomic rockets (and if you could ride along)? Then this is the book for you!

cover2 The Secret Science Society
With illustrations by Mel. White!
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Do you like to make a mess? Do you like to discover how the world works? So do Peter and Mary, who want to be scientists when they grow up. Like all scientists, they enjoy doing experiments. And like you, they don’t have much money so they have to use simple and inexpensive materials. Luckily for them, there are plenty of experiments that can be done using just the things found at home! This book contains their first ten adventures. Read along as they ask questions, make predictions, and then see what the answer is!

In this book, Mary and Peter will discover what it feels like to be in space, how to make rainbows in the backyard, and how to do something impossible. Grab your friends and join in on the fun!

November 19 – Rink Around The Rosie

Today’s factismal: The Stanley Cup has grown from seven inches tall to 35 inches tall; it would be even taller but for a rule change made in 1958!

Every sport has a championship, and every champion wins a trophy. Sometimes the trophy is a legacy from past champions, like the Indianapolis 500’s bottle of milk. Sometimes it is an individual award, like the Super Bowl rings. Sometimes it is unchanged from the first time it was awarded, like the America’s Cup’s “auld mug”. And sometimes it changes over time, like the Stanley Cup.

First awarded in 1893 to the champion amateur ice hockey team in Canada (which happened to be run by the Stanley family; conveniently enough, he was also the one to award the trophy), it became the symbol of professional hockey in 1915. Because it was originally intended to be used for just one year, the Stanley cup was fairly small – only about seven inches tall and eleven inches across, with a flat plate at the bottom where the name of every player, coach, and staff member on the winning team was engraved (another touch added by Stanley). When it was reused the next year, the new team’s information was added on. So it went for a few years until they ran out of room to add names.

The Stanley Cup in all its glory (Image courtesy J.delanoygabs)

The Stanley Cup in all its glory
(Image courtesy J.delanoygabs)

Being practical Canadians, the Stanleys simply had another ring welded onto the bottom of the original trophy and the new names were engraved on that. When the new ring ran out of room, the newly-formed professional leagues again added a new ring, giving the cup the nickname “stovepipe”. By 1958, there were eight rings of different sizes on the cup, which had gone from something easily held in one hand to a monster that took both hands to hold up. As a result, the NHL decided that no more rings would be added; instead, older ones would be “retired” and kept in a place of honor in the Hockey Hall of Fame. And so the Stanley Cup’s growth spurt ended and it has remained at 35 inches tall for the past half-century.

Though the Stanley Cup may be stable, there is some concern over whether or not the sport is. That’s because the backyard ice rinks that are a staple of Canada may be endangered by climate change. Some scientists think that warmer temperatures may reduce the number of backyard rinks, but they need data to test their idea. And that’s where you come in. If you’ve made a backyard ice rink, then register it on RinkWatch. By comparing the number of rinks every year, the scientists will be able to track the effect of climate change on a regional basis. If you’d like to participate, skate on over to:

November 18 – Would you like to play a game?

Today’s factismal: The first video game was invented in 1947, 1951, 1958, 1961, or 1977.

Invention is a hard thing to define. Though we may think that we’ll know it when we see it, it is more common that we miss the small changes that build up to create a “new” invention. It happened with the light bulb (invented in 1802, 1841, 1872, and 1879), the laser (invented in 1917, 1953, and 1960), and the video game (invented in 1847, 1951, 1959, and 1977). But unlike the light bulb, which everyone “knows” was invented by Edison, and the laser, which everyone “knows” was invented by Maiman, the video game has no publicly proclaimed father – making it the most honest of the inventions!

The world's first video game (Image courtesy Riki Manzoli)

The world’s first video game
(Image courtesy Riki Manzoli)

Perhaps the first video game (if we ignore the possible role of the Antikythera mechanism) was the eponymous Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device. This device was nothing more than a modified oscilliscope (the cathode ray) with a button that they player would use to “fire” at a target (made from a piece of cellophane placed over the screen). Originally intended for training bombardiers, it enjoyed a brief life as an amusement device before the more active pinball took its place.

Soon after that came the introduction of a computer to the game, most notably with the release of OXO or Tic-Tac-Toe. Powered by a five-ton research computer with a memory 1/2,000,000th as large as the computer on your desk (ain’t progress great?), the computer would print out each move in a game of tic-tac-toe (or noughts and crosses as the Brits who invented the machine called the game) and won most of the time.

But a five-ton computer a reams of paper don’t exactly make for scintillating game play. And so it took the introduction of the CRT to computers in the late 1950s to give us “Mouse in a maze”, the forerunner of PacMan and all of the other “chase games”. But, unlike its children, in Mouse in a maze, the player constructed the maze and the computer ran the mouse, instead of the other way around.

Or is this the world's first video game? (Image courtesy Stanford Infolab)

Or is this the world’s first video game?
(Image courtesy Stanford Infolab)

It wasn’t until 1977 that video games took on their final incarnation when Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck realized that there were folks who would pay money to play the games that they’d been giving away for free. So they added a coin slot to their version of “Galaxy Game” which pitted two player against each other in an attempt to destroy the other’s spaceship.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Within a few short years, video games would be in every mall in America and parents would be wondering what happened to their children and their spare change. And the games continue to change. Where it used to take a huge console to play a game, now you can carry it in your back pocket. And where games used to cost a quarter, now they run upwards of $50 each (but you get unlimited lives). But perhaps the best change of all in video games is that now you can play them and help scientists at the same time. Over at Citizen Sort, they are looking for a few good gamers to help them discover hidden connections in their data. To play, head over to:

November 17 – The Big Sleep

Today’s factimsal: Every year, Monarch butterflies migrate from Mexico to the Great Lakes and back again; the journey takes four generations to complete!

Yes, today is a repeated factismal. And that’s because it is one of those things that is so amazing that you simply have to repeat it to believe it. Today, while Americans search for antacids and bargains, the great-grandchildren of the Monarch butterflies that left Mexico in the spring are heading back to their winter home. Once there, they will enter a state similar to suspended animation and live that way throughout the winter. Come spring, they will lay the eggs that will become the first generation to head back north.

The route taken by four generations of monarchs for time immemorial

The route taken by four generations of monarchs for time immemorial

Just think about it and you’ll see how amazing the journey is. The Monarch butterflies that are in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas right now will be in Mexico’s forests before the end of December. There they will enter diapause and wait until spring before waking up. (Anyone who has ever tried to wake a teenager can sympathize.) After that, the butterfly will start north and lay eggs along the way. Those eggs will hatch into caterpillars that will turn into the butterflies that actually make it to the Northern United Sates, where the butterflies will spend the summer. Come fall, the children of those summer Monarchs will head south, laying yet more eggs on the way. Those eggs will become the butterflies that actually make it all the way back to Mexico, nearly a year and four generations later.

A Monarch after a rain shower (Image courtesy Journey North)

A Monarch after a rain shower (Image courtesy Journey North)

But for some reason, the number of butterflies that mange the trip each year is decreasing. Is it climate change? Is it changes in land use? Is it a natural fluctuation? We simply don’t have enough information to decide. But you can help gather that information. Right now, the folks at the Xerces Society are looking for volunteers to go out and count butterflies (this is easier than it sounds like). By comparing the numbers from year to year and looking at the geographical distribution, they hope to be able to discover why one of our most beautiful butterflies is becoming one of our rarest. To help them, join in on the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Butterfly Count at: